About this Recording
8.572422 - BUSONI, F.: Piano Music, Vol. 7 (Harden) - Trascrizione di concerto sopra motivi dell'opera Merlin / Piano Sonatinas Nos. 3 and 6
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Piano Music • 7

 

Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli (near Florence) in 1866, only child of a clarinetist father and pianist mother. He made his debut as a pianist in Trieste in 1874, going to Vienna for study the following year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Leipzig in 1885, studying there with Carl Reinecke, before teaching spells at conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow. Performing occupied much of his attention until the turn of the new century, when composing began to assume a new importance, though never dominance, in his career. Aside from living in Zurich during the First World War, he resided in Berlin from 1894 until his death in 1924.

The essence of Busoni’s music lies in its synthesis of his Italian and German ancestry: emotion and intellect; imagination and rigour. Despite acclaim from composer and performer colleagues alike, his music remained the preserve of an informed few. Neither inherently conservative nor demonstratively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations are bound up with an essentially re-creative approach to the musical past that has only gained currency in recent decades.

All of the pieces on this disc have a relation to opera, whether in terms of a direct transcription, paraphrase or more subtle adaptation. It is worth remembering the extent to which Busoni’s formative years were influenced by the virtuoso manner of Rubinstein and Liszt. One such instance is the Concert Fantasy on motifs from Goldmark’s ‘Merlin’ (1888), structured as though to resemble a concert overture with its fast-slow-fast format. A brusquely rhetorical start sets the scene for scintillating passage-work, succeeded by a march-like idea that extends across the keyboard prior to the return of the opening. A lively new theme emerges, conjoined with the march in a heady combination redolent of Liszt at his most uninhibited, then simmering down to a more expressive melody with elaborate arabesques in the right-hand. Gaining all the while in fervour, this sees an animated return of the lively idea, the initial virtuosity now returning as an energetic new theme takes the foreground. Heard together with the march-theme, this propels the piece to a forceful apotheosis then on to its dynamic conclusion.

Written at the time of Busoni’s arrival in Leipzig, the Fantasy on motifs from Cornelius’ ‘Der Barbier von Baghdad(1886) was actually his first operatic paraphrase and is the more remarkable given it was composed without knowledge of the opera in question. Less wide-ranging than the Goldmark fantasy, it is also more self-contained though not lacking in virtuosity. The pensive introduction hints at aspects of the themes to come, before an engaging discussion of its main theme. Contrast is provided by a more expressive melody itself not lacking in technical finesse, gaining steadily in emotional intensity before alluding briefly to the opening bars. A short but effervescent coda brings about the decisive and bravura close.

Aside from his opera Doctor Faust, the main project of Busoni’s last years was his Klavierübung—a tutorial through which he preserved for posterity many insights into piano technique accumulated over a lifetime of performance. The first edition, in five books, was issued between 1919 and 1922; with the second edition, reorganized and expanded into ten books, appearing posthumously in 1925. While intended as a manual for the furthering of an already virtuoso-level technique, it gathers many of Busoni’s later piano works (including some not published separately) and features pieces that might have attracted greater attention were it not for their didactic purpose. One is the First Variation-Study after Mozart—the ‘Canzonetta’ or ‘Serenade’ from Don Giovanni (included as the third item in ‘Book 6: Staccato’ of the second edition). Nominally a study in technique, it also exemplifies Busoni’s mature thinking as to temporal continuity. Unfolding at a lively canter, the piece presents its theme such that melody and accompaniment become fused to the extent they could hardly be the work of composers writing a century and more apart.

One of Busoni’s most impressive piano transcriptions is the Funeral March from ‘Götterdämmerung’ (the culminating music-drama from Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen) that he produced in 1883 and is still sometimes encountered in recital. Its ‘fate’ motif sounding ominously at the bottom of the keyboard, with ominous rejoinders rising from the left hand, this transcription follows the letter and also the spirit of Wagner’s music with unfailing integrity. The seismic climax is rendered with great dramatic power and a resourcefulness enabling the intricate motivic working to be readily appreciated in pianistic terms. Nor does Busoni under-characterize the closing pages, as the piece (heard in Wagner’s ‘concert ending’) returns to the bleakly fatalistic mood from which it first emerged.

Composed over ten years, the sonatinas are a breviary of Busoni’s development as a composer in his final full decade of creativity: the overt experimentalism of the first two making way for the renewed classicism of the last four. Sonatina ad usum infantis Madeline M. Americanae (1915) is the third of the six and falls into five seamlessly interconnected sections. A ‘Molto tranquillo’ unfolds placidly towards a plaintive ‘Andantino melancolico’ that is expounded fugally, before heading into a ‘Vivace (quasi Marcia)’ whose animated rhythmic profile and engaging motion lighten the mood appreciably. A brief return to the ‘Molto tranquillo’, sounding more extrovert combined with the march-like music, leads into a ‘Polonaise (un poco ceremonioso)’, which alludes to the last scene of Busoni’s one-act comic opera Arlecchino and with which this work reaches its subdued yet good-natured conclusion.

Very different in its manner yet audibly in the same idiom, Chamber Fantasy on Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ (1920) is the sixth of the sonatinas and a fine example of how Busoni could breathe fresh life into the opera paraphrase without compromising his mature thinking. The initial ‘Allegro deciso’ plunges into the heady atmosphere of the opera’s setting, heading into an ‘Andantino’ that similarly encapsulates its fervent love music. An ‘Allegretto tranquillo’ folds its inimitable theme into startlingly oblique harmonies, building up to an ‘Allegro ritenuto’ whose indelible rhythmic profile is at once emphasized and affectionately parodied. Inimitable, also, is the way the ‘Andante visionario’ emerges out of the foregoing, underlining the presence of fate in the opera with a finality more potent for its understatement.

Finally to Five Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing (1923, increased to seven pieces for incorporation into the second edition of the Klavierübung), which find Busoni’s musical thinking at its most developed and elusive. The opening ‘Sostenuto’ evinces a lyrical pensiveness, unfolding in waves of figuration whose intricacy is accentuated through their unfailing poise. The ‘Andante molto tranquillo e legato’ is even more refined in harmonic ambiguity, then the ‘Allegro’ implies a rhythmic energy sensed as if at an expressive remove. Marked ‘Preludio’, the ‘Andante tranquillo’ then follows on naturally—its undulating motion spreading across the keyboard so that ‘melody and accompaniment’ are as one. Designated ‘After Mozart’, the ‘Adagio’ is the most extended piece: drawing on music from the scene with the Armed Men in Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte, its plangent opening chords lead into spare counterpoint defined by a stealthy ‘walking’ bass, and which the emphatic return of the opening channels into liquid figuration before the timeless final cadence.


Richard Whitehouse


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